Organ Donation and (Im)Permanence?

Was reading some news articles this morning and stumbled on one via the Associated Press about Japan allowing more organ transplanting to take place. I never knew it was such an issue, especially to the Buddhist community in Japan.

From what the article says, the Buddhist community in Japan “consider the body sacred and reject its desecration.” This threw me for a loop, as I’ve been trying to grasp the idea of impermanence.

Tibetan Buddhist Thubten Chodron says on her website:

Two factors to consider when making this decision are 1) will organ donation harm the dying person? 2) what is the role of compassion in making this decision?

In response to the first, unlike in some religions, in Buddhism preserving the integrity of a dead body is not important. Buddhism does not believe in the coming of a messiah or a bodily resurrection at that time. Thus, removing organs is not an issue from that point of view.

Nevertheless, the question remains if the consciousness of the dying person could be adversely affected by organ transplant, since the surgery must take place immediately upon the cessation of the breath. According to Tibetan Buddhism, the consciousness may remain in the body for hours or occasionally days after the breath has stopped. During the time between the cessation of the breath and the departure of the subtlest consciousness from the body – which is the actual moment of death – it is important for the body to be undisturbed so that the consciousness can naturally absorb into subtler states. If the body is operated upon, the consciousness may be disturbed and this could adversely affect the person’s next rebirth.

On the other hand, some people have very powerful compassion and wish to donate their organs even if it could disturb their consciousness at the time of death. Such compassion for others who could use the organs is certainly admirable.

I also got this from the Rime Buddhist Center’s website (another Tibetan Buddhist school):

if the deceased expressed an interest in organ donation (and it is practical) it is believed the benefits of organ donation outweigh any spiritual issues. It is believed that because organ donation is the ultimate act of compassion, it is therefore acceptable to make an exception for the benefit of others.

I have done a bit of searching on google to find other school’s ideas and or beliefs on organ transplanting, but have come up empty handed. But, to me, it seems that organ donation would involve the utmost amount of compassion, something most Buddhists should have right?

I do understand the idea that even after the passing of the breath, the person may not be “dead” and the karmic energy has not passed on and is stuck in the bardos(?). It just seems right to donate your organs after death though, I mean, this body is impermanent and when we are dead we have no use for it right? So why not donate what someone else in dire straits might be able to use in order to live a healthy, fruitful life.

Anyone out there able to break some of this down and tell me where I maybe am wrong?


  1. The kindness of strangers in a time of great pain gave me my Dad back – the liver they donated brought him back literally from the brink of death. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish that family the best and think on them with love and gratitude.

    For myself, even if it meant a thousand subsequent less fortunate rebirths, I would gladly donate anything I could. Did you know that one donor can help as many as eight other human beings?

    This was a great blog entry — you’ve given me food for thought. Thank you.

  2. Don’t forget that local variations of Buddhism have been influenced by non-Buddhist traditions. Many Japanese forms of Buddhism retain certain elements from Shinto, in which the purity of the body is concerned extremely important.

    It’s also important to realize that Buddhism is still poorly understood by many Westerners, who tend to lump together “Asian” culture under simplistic, monolithic categories. It’s entirely possible (and in fact, I would suggest entirely likely) that the AP simply labeled people’s objections as being “Buddhist”, when in point of fact they may have more to do with Shinto or Japanese culture more generally.

    Although in the AP’s defense, it’s not easy to separate the “Buddhist” elements from the “non-Buddhist” elements of Japanese society, especially when some people may not make much of a distinction themselves. From the Wikipedia Article on Religion in Japan:

    There are many religions in Japan but most follow Shintō or Buddhism. Most Japanese people do not identify as exclusively belonging to just one religion, but incorporate features of both religions into their daily lives in a process known as syncretism. Shinto and Buddhism are even taken to as being interwoven in the country…..according to the CIA World Fact Book 84% to 96% adhere to Shinto and Buddhism while 4% to 16% of the demographic population adhere to other religions or non-religious, atheist groups.

    A lot of people think of religion as a very clear-cut affair, when in many parts of the world it’s not. It’s very difficult to describe religion in terms of ticking boxes on a census, and yet this is still how many of us are disposed to think of religion: you’re either Buddhist or not, Catholic or not, atheist or not, etc.

  3. I agree with you. I’ve never seen the importance of hording my organs or tissue from whoever might need them. The consciousness thing confuses me, though. I’ll have to look that up. As for other schools’ beliefs on the matter, I’m afraid I can’t help you much. I’m pretty sure that most Zen Buddhists are cool with it, though, but don’t take my word for it.

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